Book Review: People of the Sun

John and Sarah Tidewell are more well-traveled than you. Before you pull out your passport to brag, my statement is true regardless of how many countries you’ve visited. Because John and Sarah Tidewell have visited not only other countries, but other time periods. Despite the fact that this pre-teen/teen sibling duo may seem like normal kids, they are in fact time travelers trying to save the world.

Okay, fine, yes, they’re technically fictional characters in Ben Gartner’s Eye of Ra book series. You can find my review of the first two books in the series, The Eye of Ra and Sol Invictus, here.

People of the Sun is the third book in the middle grade Eye of Ra series, and is just as action-packed and historically accurate as its predecessors.

John and Sarah are visiting their aunt in California when an earthquake hits and two strangers mysteriously appear and whisk them away through time and space to a janitor’s closet. Who are these strangers, how do they know so much about John and Sarah, and why do they look so familiar? The Tidewell siblings have questions new and old aplenty, and they set out to find the answers. But along the way, they might have to save the world by traveling back in time to the era of the Mexica, right before Cortés arrives.

John and Sarah face new challenges unlike any they’ve encountered before, partly due to the question that plagues them: if you could change the past, should you? Great philosophical debates could be had on this topic, but our pre-teen and teenaged heroes have to make these decisions in the moment. Will they restore the timeline that ensures their existence at the expense of the Mexica (often referred to as the Aztec) people, or help the Mexica defeat Cortés and irrevocably change the future, possibly eliminating the existence of billions of people?

Though this plot is heavier than in the previous books, Gartner ramps up the excitement to match the high stakes. The plot is well-paced and engaging, a surefire combination for a book that’s impossible to put down.

The settings are vividly described, from the present day California hike to the Mexica village to hiking through jungles to the floating city of Tenochtitlan. Gartner does an excellent job of providing historical context and framing without overwhelming the reader or slowing the plot’s advancement.

People of the Sun has wonderful character development, showing great character growth and the complex thought processes of philosophical questions that our intrepid time travelers grapple with. It also shows what an impossible decision it is that our main characters face: they ask themselves again and again if they should change history, and discuss how wrong it feels to let such a bad thing happen. John’s improved decision making abilities and Sarah’s new tendency to think things through also help the siblings relate to one another in a new way, and understand each other better.

Each book has showcased John and Sarah’s personal and inter-relational growth. Each book seems to grow with the reader as well, handling more advanced historical contexts and adding more about the science of time travel.

This series has consistently demonstrated historical events and cultures in an accessible way for modern kids. Something that always bothered me a little in book one was how John and Sarah shortened the Egyptian characters names, making nicknames that felt more comfortable and familiar to them. This frustrated me, because calling someone by their preferred name is important. Another part of the character’s grown is that this only occurs in book one; in both Sol Invictus and People of the Sun, even the pronunciations that would be incredibly unusual for our American protagonists to encounter are consistently utilized and a proper pronunciation is given for the reader.

As a person of indigenous descent and current tribal citizen, I love that People of the Sun shares the complex pre-colonial history of the Mexica. The daily existence, both in the village and the city of Tenochtitlan, is portrayed respectfully and without judgement. I especially love how John notices the supreme beauty, even while confronting some of the darker elements of older civilizations. I also appreciate the author’s note at the end of the book, which provides more details on the Mexica and resources to learn even more.

I do want to include a content warning for young readers. This book does contain brief descriptions of the practice of human sacrifice (the effects of which are seen and discussed, but there is no direct human sacrifice in the book), death, and battle scenes. None of these moments are gratuitous, but it could be frightening for younger readers.

People of the Sun is an engaging read that is sure to enrapture middle grade readers. It has the perfect balance of a thought provoking plot, intense action sequences, and relatable characters. This entire series is guaranteed to become a favorite for any history-obsessed reader.

People of the Sun will be available February 1, 2022. Thank you to author Ben Gartner for providing me with an advanced e-copy of the book such that I could write this review. All opinions are my own.

You can pre-order People of the Sun from Bookshop.org here or from Amazon here. Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.

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